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Are We What We Eat?

BEN WATTENBERG: Hello, this is Ben Wattenberg. In the last 25 years Americans have eaten less fat and exercised more. Yet, the incidents of obesity and type two diabetes have increased. What happened? For an examination we are joined by Gary Taubs, science journalist and author of the new book GOOD CALORIES/BAD CALORIES. The topic before the house: Are we what we eat? This week on THINK TANK.
[MUSIC]
WATTENBERG: Gary Taubs, welcome to THINK TANK.
GARY TAUBS: Thank you, Ben.
WATTENBERG: Let me begin the way we normally begin, tell me a little bit about your background.
GARY TAUBS: Well, I am a science journalist. I was -- for 20 years I wrote about controversial science, good science, bad science, I watched -- did a book about physicists who discovered non-existent elementary particles. And about 15 years ago I started writing about public health, because the science in many of the -- behind many of our public health beliefs is shoddy at best. And this is what I was fascinated with.
And the result of basically 15 years of work and seven years of intensive research was the book that I published in September.
WATTENBERG: And itís called?
GARY TAUBS: Itís called GOOD CALORIES/BAD CALORIES challenging the conventional wisdom on diet, weight control and disease.
WATTENBERG: Who published it?
GARY TAUBS: Knopf.
WATTENBERG: Where did you go to school?
GARY TAUBS: Oh, I went to -- I have an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a masters from Stanford and Columbia.
WATTENBERG: Give me in capsule form sort of a general theme of what the book is.
GARY TAUBS: The general theme -- for 30 years we believed that saturated fat and dietary fat was sort of the root of all evil in our diets, that it gives us heart disease and even some cancers.
And we believe that we get fat because we eat too much and because dietary fat has the densest calories in the diet because we eat too much fat.
And I wanted -- I just went out to sort of see if thereís any truth to that and ended up believing that itís actually not the fat that makes us -- gives us heart disease but the kind of carbohydrates we consume. If you look at this food pyramid, the bottom, the staple of our diet is supposed to be carbohydrate foods.
And the question I ask in my book is, particularly about obesity, thatís the fundamental issue. Because if youíre overweight or obese that increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
There was recently a report that came out last fall that I have a lot of problems with. But their primary conclusion was that the fundamental risk factor for cancer is being overweight.
So, the question is what makes you overweight and the argument that I make in the book is thereís a scientific obligation to establish the cause of overweight and obesity just as there is -- you know once you know that cigarettes cause lung cancer, you can stop smoking.
Once we know the HIV virus causes AIDS you can choose to use condoms or not. The question is what makes us fat.
The orthodox -- conventional wisdom is that weíre gaining weight because we overeat. You take in too many calories than you expend. And maybe as you get older you expend less and your brain doesnít adjust.
Then you have to ask the question why is it that humans are the only species that get fatter as they get older.
And these are the kinds of issues I discuss in the book. You know what is it that makes us fat. What gives us heart disease. What gives us diabetes.
Is what we are told by our physicians and our nutritionists and our public health authorities correct. And unfortunately in that sense Iím only going to confuse you because I conclude that theyíre not.
Again, I didnít have a bone to pick. I wasnít a nutritionist.
WATTENBERG: I understand.
GARY TAUBS: I didnít write this book to make money. As you know writing -- spending five years of your life writing a book is a lousy way to make an income.
WATTENBERG: Do you work for a newspaper or do you freelance?
GARY TAUBS: Iím a freelancer. I was a correspondent -- well, I still am a correspondent for the Journal of Science. I did -- much of the preliminary work for this book was done as research for science and then I did a somewhat famous or infamous cover story for the New York Times magazine in 2002.
That was a -- the cover was a picture of a Porterhouse steak with a pat of butter on it and it said, you know, what if fat doesnít make you fat. And ever since then Iíve been working on this book.
WATTENBERG: Let me ask you a question. Thereís another common dictum which is eat small meals frequently.
GARY TAUBS: Right.
WATTENBERG: Do you buy that?
GARY TAUBS: Well, itís interesting. The reason you want to eat small meals frequently is to keep your insulin levels down. Insulin is the hormone -- you know youíre most familiar with it. Insulin is -- in type one diabetics, insulin is absent entirely. And in type two diabetics insulin -- you actually produce a lot of insulin but your tissues are resistant to it.
So, the idea in these small meals is to keep insulin levels down and again the argument that I make in the book is that one of the fundamental roles of insulin is to tell your fat tissue to store fat.
WATTENBERG: There are good fats and bad fats and good carbs and bad carbs. What does that mean in English?
GARY TAUBS: Well, again, the conventional wisdom -- good fats are mono unsaturated fats and poly -- these are animal fats that are found more off oils like olive oil -- people that -- the medical community -- a certain facet of the medical research community loves olive oil and thinks itís a cure all.
Cod liver oil, which your mother made you drink has omega three fatty acids in it. Thatís considered a good fat. Saturated fats are bad fats, because they cause heart disease.
WATTENBERG: You donít believe that?
GARY TAUBS: I donít believe that. The good carbs/bad carbs argument -- good carbs are carbohydrates which have a lot of fiber in them, say brown rice, which isnít as refined as white rice. So you could eat brown rice or you could eat bread that isnít as refined, so those are good carbohydrates. And they become bad carbohydrates when you refine them too much.
The carbohydrate argument -- thereís a lot -- I would say thereís some validity to, because the problem is the more you refine the carbohydrate -- you take the grain -- and we canít eat grain straight from the field, so you got to get rid of the shell and you -- you know you refine it and you purify it and you end up with something that we can digest easily.
And in the process of doing that -- making it easier to digest -- you make it -- you increase the affect it has on your body. So, the key thing is these carbohydrate foods weíre talking about make you secret insulin.
You need the insulin to dispose -- the carbohydrates get digested, they enter your bloodstream as something called glucose and you got to deal with that glucose and the insulin tells your muscle tissue to burn it and your fat tissue to store it, in effect simplifying --
WATTENBERG: One of the easiest things for you to say, which I will allow you to say, is read my book if you want to understand it.
GARY TAUBS: I wrote the book so that people -- I wrote the book not just so the public would understand it, because this idea that you shouldnít eat carbs has been around for 30 -- 50 -- 100 -- actually 150 years, to be precise. You could even go back further, 180 years. People have been saying carbohydrates make you fat. If you donít want to be fat, donít eat them.
The problem is the medical research establishment is convinced that itís all about calories and dietary fat.
And when I was writing this book, I would have these arguments with my editor a Knopf -- not arguments, because he was in agreement -- I would say it doesnít do any good to just write another diet book.
You read a diet book like Atkins, you give up these carbohydrates -- itís very easy to lose weight giving up carbohydrates, provided you stay away from them, you donít start eating them again.
And then you go to your doctor and your doctor says, oh, youíre on Atkins, youíre killing yourself, because youíre clogging your arteries with all the fat youíre eating and the meat and the cheese.
So, what -- it doesnít do any good to say carbohydrates make you fat, because the medical research community doesnít believe it. They donít understand the concepts, they donít understand the causality issues as Iíve talked about.
So, the fundamental thing I had to do first is write a book that physicians can read. Iíve argued, go buy this book, give it to your doctor. If youíve got diabetes, buy this book and definitely give it to your doctor. And if you have some spare cash, buy several copies and mail them to America Diabetes Association.
Weíre drowning in obese and diabetic Americans. The rates just keep going up. And type two diabetes is really strange because --
WATTENBERG: Well, they lowered the bar on obesity. I mean it used to be like -- people who are a little -- those definitions keep changing.
GARY TAUBS: Yeah, the definitions keep changing. But when I was high school in the 19 -- early 1970ís -- there were two kids in our high school who I would have called obese. This is in suburban Maryland out here. I know because I was a big guy. I had to wrestle and they were -- oh, they were the heavy weights and I was the one who had to wrestle them. I hated wrestling.
But two fat kids in the school. If there are ten or 20 in a single class, the rates have gone up today. Thatís all I can say. Itís a personal observation.
You know -- actually one of the women I talk about in the book, one of the researchers, was an Austrian clinician named Hilda Brook, and she came over from Austria in 1933 and she was stunned by how many fat kids there were in New York compared to what she had seen in Austria.
And, so, she actually became -- set up the first pediatric obesity clinic in New York and devoted her life to try to figure out what it is that makes these children so fat.
My point is -- like I said -- whether or not obesity -- take type two diabetes, for instance, that used to be known as adult onset diabetes. Now you get it in children frequently.
I mean there are some clinics in Texas for instance where -- more children have type two diabetes than theyíve ever seen before.
WATTENBERG: What does the medical profession about you? Do they say this is really interesting, this is a different way of looking at things. Or do they say this guyís a quack?
GARY TAUBS: They say -- there are various viewpoints. I mean some people -- again, Iíve been lecturing around the medical schools, lecturing at public health departments -- they take me seriously. And they realize that I --
WATTENBERG: We take you seriously or you wouldnít be on the program.
GARY TAUBS: They realize Iíve done an enormous amount of research on the subject, conceivably more than any human being alive at the moment. Because the one thing the internet does allow you -- to find every primary source -- to track it -- I own virtually every book written on obesity up until 1980 or so when they proliferate too widely.
There are a lot of people we know what Taubs thinks. He wrote this New York Times magazine article five years ago, he believes in the Atkins diet.
WATTENBERG: You buy Atkins, you think Atkins is the right --
GARY TAUBS: Atkins is saying the same thing that I concluded which is that carbohydrates make you fat. If carbohydrates make you fat, then the only way to not be fat is to not eat them.
If cigarettes give you lung cancer, you donít want to have lung cancer, you donít smoke. Itís that kind of causality weíre dealing with. If carbohydrates make you fat, find a diet that doesnít have these carbohydrates in it and thatís what Atkins was saying.
WATTENBERG: What about alcohol. They say a glass or two of red wine is healthy, but any excess -- or hard liquor is not good for you. Do you buy that?
GARY TAUBS: I have some -- I like a glass or two of red wine, but I have -- one of the reasons they say this again is because healthy people tend to drink in moderation.
And the French seem to be very healthy and they tend to drink a lot and thereís other European countries that seem to have less heart disease than we do that are wine drinking countries.
But, again, the question is does the wine make them healthy or is it just that healthy people tend to do everything in moderation.
WATTENBERG: I want to ask you a question, getting back to exercise. Iíve played a lot of sports in my time, I love it. And itís a universal phenomenon. Itís very -- you travel around the world and somebody will always come up to you and say, you know, in Pakistan we really love sports, like itís a big secret.
I have had occasion -- itís called a runnerís high or something -- Iíve had occasion where I play tennis and get really exerted and you have this, what is it, overflow of endorphins, the so-called natural opiate. I mean thatís got to be good for you to get that feeling of well-being.
GARY TAUBS: I donít -- Iíve been an athlete my whole life. I still go to the gym regularly, I -- I have nothing against exercise. But my point is that a healthy person should want to be physically active.
Take kids for example, the idea is that our children are getting fatter because theyíre sedentary. And my argument is if a child is sedentary, heís probably sedentary because the foods heís eating are making him fatter.
And if you look at kittens and puppies, young animals of any other species, theyíre incredibly physically active. They should want to be incredibly physically active. If theyíre not, itís probably because thereís something wrong with them.
WATTENBERG: One of the -- I think -- the great new laws is this Title IX that pushes women particularly, but men also to play competitive sports -- and we have pretty good data on that -- people in America and probably around the world do more sports than ever before.
And, yet, at the same time you and others say weíre sedentary. Now, I donít get how that -- how that parses.
GARY TAUBS: Well, remember Iím not saying weíre sedentary. Our establishment is saying weíre more sedentary than ever before. And one thing I point out in my book is if you go back to the 1960ís people didnít exercise the way they do now.
Remember back then Jack Lelanne was the only health guru. If you wanted to work out -- health clubs were called spas and they were places that women went to and they had as many belts as they had, you know, exercise bikes.
Remember Gatorade was invented in 1967. Nike and Adidas were these tiny little shoe companies. And then thereís this exercise explosion that begins in the 1970ís.
And you can see it in the newspapers. I quote articles from the late 1970ís where theyíre talking about, you know, the new runners revolution and suddenly, you know, hundreds of thousands of Americans --
WATTENBERG: Jim Fixx ran and died.
GARY TAUBS: Forty-six, I think he was.
WATTENBERG: Forty-six.
GARY TAUBS: Yeah, so one of the interesting things is you know our public health authorities blamed the current level of obesity on sedentary behavior. And, yet this obesity epidemic, if you believe itís really happening actually coincides with what could call an epidemic of exercise.
You know there are more gyms now -- they think -- again, I forget the numbers, but the profits of the health club industry is something 50 billion dollars a year today.
And, yet, weíre all supposed to be fat because weíre sedentary and the argument against it of course is obviously if youíre fat, then you must be sedentary.
So, the thin people are working out and the obese people are getting memberships but not going. Thatís the counter argument.
WATTENBERG: What about the role of genetics. Do people whose parents and ancestors live long -- tend to live longer --
GARY TAUBS: Yeah, I mean genes obviously play a role. The problem -- what makes this obesity epidemic so meaningful -- the diabetes epidemic is -- something is changing the past 30 - 40 years and itís not our genes.
So, people who tend to be overweight -- you know, if it runs in families -- weíve known -- thereíve been reliable studies, at least 80 - 90 years ago showing that thereís a large genetic component to obesity and overweight.
The question is what is the genes -- are responding to something in the environment. Thereís nature, our genes -- that nurture our environment. SO, whatís changing in the environment.
You know our public health authorities think hat people are getting heavier because they are not being forced to be physically active.
WATTENBERG: But we have evidence that people are more physically active with all the health clubs, with all the almost mandatory sports that the have to play. I mean thatís -- it doesnít somehow parse.
GARY TAUBS: I -- this is -- I agree with you but this is what you hear all the time, that you donít have to take gym any more in school, that kids -- you know, weíre not allowed -- we donít allow our kids to walk or ride their bikes to school anymore.
That after school weíre so afraid of you know the predators who live in our environment that we wonít even let our kids play outside. And basically what they have is they have huge problem, this obesity problem.
We keep getting bigger, we keep getting fatter. You know, babies -- birth weights of newborn babies are going up and those babies are getting fatter.
This was a study that was reported out of Harvard, last summer, I think. So, the question is why are all these people getting fatter.
And one of the problems is if you think about the conventional wisdom, even a little bit, you come up with these kind of surreal paradoxes. What does it mean to overeat for instance.
If you have two people, one is thin and one is fat and they eat the same amount of calories per day, why is it the fat personís overeating and the thin person isnít. And if you read Boswellís LIFE OF JOHNSON, they argued about this 150 years ago. You know itís -- Boswell says, weíll heís obviously overeating because heís fat.
WATTENBERG: But itís interesting, these arguments never end do they?
GARY TAUBS: Well, they never end because first of all everyone has an opinion. I gave a lecture about this yesterday in New York. And afterwards a woman was telling me oh, itís like people conceived of this, itís like magic, this diet will work, that diet will work.
And my argument was itís not magic. Itís human physiology. Itís bio chemistry, itís nothing more magical happening our bodies --
WATTENBERG: You know, like most everything else in the world, science has become politicized.
GARY TAUBS: Oh, it has become politicized.
WATTENBERG: People are interested in it -- in a free country itís political.
GARY TAUBS: And the more it impacts them individually, the more politicized it becomes. But the problem is you have to remain skeptical. Science doesnít function without skepticism.
Like when I talk about science journalism to young journalists, I say, you know, if youíre interviewing a scientist, heís got some new discovery heís claiming, heís got a press release ask him to play devilís advocate. Have him tell you why he could have screwed up.
And at the very least he should say, well, if I knew how, I wouldnít have -- you know, I wouldnít have published, I would still be in the laboratory working on this.
But the good scientists will say, well I could have missed this, I could have missed that, I could have missed this --
WATTENBERG: And of course peer review is very important. I mean itís a --
GARY TAUBS: But peer review is there -- peer review serves a lot of purposes, but you can fool virtually -- one of the problems today is the more dramatic the claim the easier it is to get it into a journal.
You know one -- my second book was on cold fusion. Remember cold fusion, a couple of guys from the university of Utah who claimed they could create nuclear power in a glass of heavy water you know -- that was published in the nation -- it was published in the nation. It was the front page of every newspaper because it was such a dramatic claim.
WATTENBERG: And the reason we know so much more now, as I understand it, is not that weíre so much smarter, but that Faraday already discovered electricity and the Curies discovered -- you build -- itís an evolutionary process.
GARY TAUBS: This is one of the problems I talk about in my book -- is that prior to World War Two, European -- German and Austrian clinicians -- medical researchers -- these people who basically founded and pioneered the medical science had an entirely different conception about heart -- obesity than we do today.
And, yet that foundation vanished with the second world war. And what weíre working with now is something that was created in the 1950ís by people who really didnít -- not only did they not understand obesity, they didnít understand science.
WATTENBERG: Are we going about institutional medical research in the right way?
GARY TAUBS: Well, thereís a couple of problems. First of all despite all the talk about preventing disease the -- so much of the resources for doing research comes from drug industries.
You know if you want to do a diet study, if you want to do a study to determine what actually makes people fat, you canít get funding to do it.
Once you have a kind of official position on what constitutes a healthy diet, thereís very little impetus to challenge that. The whole system, the way grants are funded -- you know, you bring together all the experts who agree with one opinion and then you have them decide who gets the money, who gets funding.
So, if somebody says the experts are wrong. Theyíre not going to give his grant funding because they think heís obviously an idiot. Why would he disagree with us.
So, this -- so the grant system tends reward consensus behavior, following the pack.
WATTENBERG: On the other hand I mean some of the discoveries by the pharmaceutical industry in the last couple of decades have really been miracles.
GARY TAUBS: Basically the idea -- the problem here is that by the late 1970ís we had settled on this idea that dietary fat was bad. We had a kind of satellite of -- excuse me -- solar system of issues of what constituted a healthy diet.
So, it was low in fat, low in saturated fat and high in fruits and vegetables and fiber and maybe some of the good fats. And, so bys for the next 25 - 30 years, what they did is they set out to try and prove that that was true.
You know, so they would fund -- the studies they funded were all you know hereís a healthy diet and hereís everyone else and letís see if the people on the healthy diet somehow have less cancer or less breast cancer and less heart disease.
And whatís interesting is time and time again, these studies fail, but it didnít make them doubt the nature of a healthy diet and it didnít make them fund alternative ideas about what a healthy diet was.
You can -- you know you can go to the pharmaceutical industry and you get the money you need to study genes, to study molecules and signal pathways to look for drug targets. Itís very hard to get money to study something as simple as why do people get fat and how do we stop them from doing it, as opposed to studying how we might come up with a drug that can cure them afterwards.
WATTENBERG: The root as I understand it of many of the new health care plans, both Republican and Democratic is letís get people to live healthier lives so we donít have to treat them.
GARY TAUBS: Thatís what everyone talks about. But the problem is they assume they know what a healthy life is. Itís usually what Iím doing or what youíre doing or, you know -- they donít have -- for instance a lean person assumes he knows that anyone whoís fat must be fat because they donít have his willpower.
You know I go to the gym, I eat within moderation. If youíre fat and Iím not, therefore itís because you donít go to the gym. You donít need moderation.
And, so, not only is there no motivation to study the possibility that the lean person might be wrong -- but again you know the pharmaceutical industry basically benefits from curing diseases after the fact. Itís just the way things work.
WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you very much.
GARY TAUBS: Thank you.
WATTENBERG: And thank you all. Please remember to send us your comments via email. We think it makes our program better. For THINK TANK Iím Ben Wattenberg.
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